Editorial: Unseemly rant
The captains of Indian industry were horrified last week by the intemperate outburst against the Tatas and several other reputed business houses by the Union commerce minister, Piyush Goyal. He accused them of pursuing grubby corporate motives in a manner that undermined national interest. The diatribe was apparently triggered after the Tatas strenuously opposed Mr Goyal’s plan to amend e-commerce laws that seek to clamp onerous restrictions on digital marketplaces. The Narendra Modi government has already spooked industry by ordering an intense scrutiny of the relationship between online marketplace operators like Amazon and Walmart and their partners that sell their products through these digital channels. This has snowballed into an anti-trust investigation into their business practices. The Tatas fear that the proposed e-commerce laws will circumscribe their ambitions in the online retailing arena. The boffins at Bombay House, the headquarters of the $106 billion conglomerate, have been beavering away on a ‘Super App’ through which the Tatas plan to sell a wide range of products manufactured by group companies, business associates and their joint ventures. The row is over restrictions that could potentially block the sale through the Super App of multi-brand products currently peddled by BigBasket in which the Tatas recently acquired a 64 per cent stake.
The worrying aspect in the controversy is the Centre’s attempts to push a woolly self-reliance agenda under the ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ initiative and re-define the notion of national interest. The sordid attempts to blend narrow, executive-inspired policy objectives with harsh regulatory directives raise barriers to business and make a mockery of the government’s self-gratulatory assertions that it is trying to create a level playing field. There is concern that the government’s interference in matters that should be decided by market forces is another sinister attempt to influence outcomes and cherry-pick winners.
The industry has retreated into a sullen, dignified silence after Mr Goyal’s tongue-lashing. The fear of retribution has muzzled protest. Opposition politicians have been the only ones to express outrage at the outburst. It is high time that India Inc learnt to work up the courage to publicly voice its views on vital issues that impact its business. The Centre has been grappling with the task of framing new rules for the digital economy. A draft national policy framework paper had projected the size of the digital economy in India at $1 trillion by 2022 which will swell to almost half the size of the overall economy by 2030. There is a lot to play for here. Mr Goyal’s rant is a sign of the edginess within the government as it tries to balance conflicting, often competing, interests in an emerging battlefield.